People Change

By Miranda Martini

by Vivek Shraya
Penguin Canada
2022/$17.95/112 pp.

Our species has a complex relationship with change. From the moment we depart the womb (arguably our first major encounter with change), each new crossroads comes with a slew of anxieties and frustrations: What if I turn into someone I don’t want to be? What if the thing that’s changing me is external or cosmetic—new clothes, medication, a bigger paycheque—and I’ll revert back to form once the thing that’s making me different goes away? Why can’t I force others to change for the better? The stakes feel especially high right now, with the future as uncertain as ever. What will the world look like in 10, 20, 50 years? Will there still be a world to envision? Our way of life is unsustainable, yet imagining a different way forward feels painful. Whatever’s next, the jump is from a great height and a soft landing is not guaranteed.

In People Change, Vivek Shraya invites us to rethink this fraught relationship. Shraya is no stranger to reinvention; over the course of her career, one of the few constants is her reputation as a chameleon. Given that, it’s a timely book, not just for the cultural moment but for Shraya herself. The publication is in part an opportunity to mark her 40th birthday—the birthday that, for most of her youth, she believed would be her last. Shraya takes this opportunity to revisit some of the people she’s been: devout child, bullied adolescent, spouse, popstar, writer, teacher, academic. In the process she provides a roadmap for treating our former and future selves with gentleness and generosity, and for remaining in conversation with all of the different lives we will live and people we will be.

In this memoir-meets-manifesto Shraya models a relationship with the evolving self that is free of judgment, and that lets go of the desire to always be turning into someone “better,” whatever that means. “I don’t want my next shape to be necessarily better,” she writes, “I want it to be different.”

Shraya notes that we as a culture are often uncomfortable with or resistant to change, to our detriment. Why, for instance, is there no protocol for breaking up with friends, as there is for romantic relationships? She also acknowledges that change can be forced upon us—by systemic injustices, by trauma that necessitates change as a survival mechanism, or simply by the natural atrophic effects of time. Shraya makes room for these involuntary transformations as well, musing on her own anxiety around aging, hair loss, peaking creativity.

People Change invites us to examine with curiosity the role of change in our lives, whatever its source, and to see each birth of a new version of ourselves—however unsettling, destabilizing, frightening—as just as vital as the first.

Miranda Martini is a writer and musician in Calgary.

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